Building a Better Street, an example from Milan


Let’s go back to Milan. As part of their transformation project towards a Green City, they have recently reconstructed a multi-block street to make it more urban, less car-dominated. They got mostly good results, but with a number of caveats.


The overarching premise was simple: ban through traffic, narrow the traffic  road to one lane with pull-off bays for deliveries, permit local traffic to access garages/courtyards, no on-street parking. The former street surface was converted to the delivery bays, or greened, and a number of outdoor terraces (with inclement weather protection) were installed in each block.


The landscape architects and planners couldn’t stop there though, they also larded the area with fancy paving, including cobble stones that aren’t rough enough to slow vehicles but are uncomfortable for bikes, strollers, handcarts, and even people.



The sidewalks themselves are granite pavers, much smoother, but also expensive. Somehow a demonstration project that uses higher cost items loses some of its persuasive power when it is obviously expensive to implement. Would the walks be any less attractive or used if they were paved in concrete?


The trees haven’t yet grown tall. In the sub-tropical climate of Milan, they should grow quickly. Assuming, of course, that they aren’t planted in roadbed gravel but have 11 cu m or so of good organic soil in each pit or trench per tree.


If you haven’t noticed by now, the street is in the “chinatown” neighbourhood. There was a gritty element to the area. Graffiti. Massage-parlours. Retail outlets used as wholesale depots. The side blocks were a mix of original buildings and infill apartment buildings. Definitely not The Glebe. My Airbnb was in a refurb condo.


There were bike rental stands. Riding was attractive on the low-traffic street, and some of the side streets, but then there were frequent very busy streets with too-fast-moving traffic that epitomizes the traditional auto-centric Milan. Streetcar tracks are also cycle hazards. Some separated bike tracks are appearing on the major boulevards, so it is probably possible for locals to seek out and learn safe routes.


Many of the kiosks had infra-red heaters and closing window or plastic screens. They were busy at lunch, and a few were popular in the evening. Some were not in use. The architects provided a number on each block, I guess whether needed today or not … uses will change with time.


Where the new green street intersected with cross streets, bulb outs narrowed the crossing, zebra stripes were marked, and the interruption to the green street felt controlled. Trucks made deliveries in certain hours. In some blocks, like the one shown below, there were no trees (due to underground utilities?):


Like in many European cities, pedestrian-priority streets work. They work because they are used on pedestrian-scale streets (not too wide, otherwise you cannot get the cars off them, and they don’t make ped friendly streets even if that happens). Occasional traffic like taxis, delivery vehicles, and cars accessing garages works well provided the car is the visitor or guest, and pedestrian needs are obviously the priority. In every case, cycling down the middle of the street is encouraged, indeed, seems to be a promoted feature of the new green street. Self policing seems to work well – even the courier cycles went sedately by.

Why can’t Sparks Street, fossilized into irrelevance by clinging to its pedestrians and only pedestrians model, reinvent itself, if only by introducing a winding (ie, not a speedway) cycle path down its centre on a temporary basis to see if it works well. Instead, it mutters about returning to a car street. Like every other dead or dying traditional main street that tries to cater to both cars and shoppers. It doesn’t and won’t work. The Sparks Street Mall doesn’t need fancy new pavers or $5000 benches. It needs life, and imagination. Businesses and people are synergistic. Attract street users. Business grows. More people come. More business. A virtuous cycle.


for more on Milan, go back several articles to read about the Bosco Verticale


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